Lady in White (1988)
What’s It About: There are countless “Lady in White” ghost stories all over the world. Ask any one above the age of 3 what color are ghosts and I bet all of them say ‘white.’ So right off the bat, I know this film is going to run short of the creativity department. This story begins with a famous horror/mystery writer traveling back to his hometown. Along the way he asks the taxi driver to stop at a cemetery and he pays respect to two gravestones. Then the film flashes back to 1962. This film has a running time of 117 minutes and I can honestly say 30 minutes could easily be deleted out. The whole writer, our narrator, as an adult reflecting back is never seen again our bookends the movie at the finale. I don’t know why this detail is in the movie. I basically forgot about the writer by the end.
So now we’re in a fictional upstate New York small town of Willowpoint Falls. Another pointless and time wasting montage of small town comings and goings featuring characters we never see or hear of again for another 2 or 3 minutes. Finally we meet Frankie, our protagonist (Lukas Haas), his brother Geno (played by the kid who was not Ethan Hawke or River Phoenix in Explorers), their father (Alex Rocco) and also their off-the-boat Italian grandparents. There’s a pointless subplot about the grandfather always sneaking a cigarette much to his wife’s chagrin. Its pointless because no where in the entire movie does this subplot effect the narrative. Its basically to add charm to this cast of characters; same as the earlier montage with the citizens of Willowpoint Falls, to show how much life was great and simple back in 1962. Its very Spielbergian in its tone and approach to showing suburban life and good people. I’m shocked this isn’t an Amblin produced picture.
Its Halloween and the brothers are off to school. Frankie is dressed as Dracula complete with Bela Lugosi mask and cape and the brothers race on their bikes to school. Along the way they hop over a small ravine in the forest—bikes, Halloween, jumping over a gap—see what I mean by Spielbergian? I don’t know how far they live from school but this is one long bike ride at racing speed. They reach town square and Geno puts on a werewolf mask and hides to jump scare Frankie which he successfully does and Frankie loses control of his bike and falls into wet cement. I’m no contractor but I’m pretty sure that cement will cause a lot of trouble when it hardens but Frankie goes to school with his clothes and Dracula’s cape covered in cement. Wouldn’t the cape’s weight alone be too heavy. Whatever, let’s press on.
At school it’s revealed that Frankie likes to write stories, especially scary ones (hence our narrator) and that he is also a goody-two-shoes for helping his teacher carry her books to her car. At the car the teacher asks Frankie to tell his father to give her a call. Bold move for an elementary school teacher to ask a young student for. If I was that kid, the thought of my teacher dating my dad would definitely make me NOT tell my dad. After the teacher leaves, two of Frankie’s frenemies (one is the friend of Tom Hanks in Big) trick Frankie into getting his cap from the cloakroom in the back of their classroom. While Frankie is looking for his cap, they lock him in. Not for 5 minutes. Not for 10 minutes but for what I assume is 7 or more hours. There’s a window in the cloakroom and Frankie watches his good buddies run away from the school leaving him there not only to miss trick-or-treating but to miss dinner and bedtime as well. Frankie makes the best of a bad situation by reminiscing about his dead mother. Again more pointless charm and exposition that isn’t entirely necessary for the major plot. At 10 O’clock, Frankie sees a ghost of a little girl dancing in the cloakroom. She also sings the old song: Have You Ever Seen A Dream Walking. They speak to each other briefly before the ghost girl is somehow violently attacked by an invisible entity. Then she’s lifted up and carried away. Shortly after this event, a dark figure of a man enters the cloakroom and looks into the grate on the floor. Frankie, scared, makes a noise and the man attacks Frankie nearly killing him. Frank is wearing his Lugosi mask so the man doesn’t know who he is. Frankie then has a near-death experience, complete with flying with terrible special effects through the town, seeing brilliant light and premonitions of his family members and friends at the time of this event. He even stands upon his own gravestone and again speaks to the little girl ghost, who asks him to help her find her mother. Just then Moe Green is reviving his son and the only person at the school, the African-American janitor is arrested.
Frankie awakens at home in his bed and more unfunny and unnecessary antics and bickering between the grandparents. Why these characters are in the film is questionable since they don’t do anything in or around the plot. Frankie tells his dad that he never saw the face of his attacker. Geno walks in with newspapers highlighting Frankie’s attack and its revealed that 11 other children have been molested and killed in the town’s past ten years. The black janitor who was erroneously arrested is now the main suspect in these past unsolved crimes, thus beginning another pointless subplot about racial prejudice and the civil rights movement. Now this movie feels like a Springsteen song. Frankie reads more of the newspaper story and finds out that the little girl ghost was the first victim and that the cliffs on the outskirts of town was where the other children have been thrown off by the killer. The house by the cliffs is said to be haunted by the titular Lady in White.
We now meet Phil, Moe Green’s best friend and the boys’ fictive uncle. Moe, Phil and another guy who you never ever see again in the movie, discuss the case and the ordeal. Seems Moe believes the janitor’s story about being drunk that night and falling asleep in the boiler room but the other fellas are still not buying it. Later that night Moe Green is sitting uneasy watching TV news about college segregation in the south and the early deployments of troops to some place called Vietnam. See what I mean by editing down the running time? So much unnecessary stuff is forcibly shoehorned in this film for nostalgia’s sake that its becoming annoying.
That night while Frankie sleeps, supernatural stuff happen, like his drawers open and close, his slippers walk on their own and a heart is wrote on the condensation on the window. Also a creepy old woman wearing a white night gown is staring at Frankie through the window! Next scene is a church scene and an older lady scares off the wife and family of the janitor when she accuses him of killing their son. The janitor’s wife faints and Moe Green helps her and drives them home and says some kind but pointless words to try to soothe their situation. Moving on shall we?
Frankie opens up the cloakroom grate and finds a girls’ brooch or hair-clip (they don’t say) and a high school class ring. Next is some montage showing the passage of time from autumn to Christmas time with kids looking in toy store windows, the grandma baking holiday cookies and the whole family decorating the house and trimming the tree. All the best clichés! Oh Grandpa, don’t let Geno wrap garland around your body like you’re a Christmas tree, you old coot! One night Frankie sees the ghost girl in his house admiring the Christmas tree. Basically thats it. End scene.
Frankie overhears the chief of police talking to his dad that unless Frankie can prove that it wasn’t the janitor than he will be charged and convicted. The chief blatantly admits that he’s the perfect scapegoat for these unsolved murders because he’s black. Frankie is then interrupted by Phil and Frankie tries to convince Phil that it wasn’t the janitor and that found stuff in the grate, especially the class ring. Oh grandpa, get your head out of the bathtub! You can’t drown yourself because you can’t find your cigarettes! Why is there so much screen time with these grandparents?!
While making deliveries of Christmas cards he sold to people, Frankie is coaxed by his frenemies again to go to the supposedly haunted house by the cliffs. The last time he was convinced to do something with these clowns he was locked in a cloakroom for hours and nearly killed, so naturally Frankie would be willing to trespass an old house in the dark, what’s the worst that can happen? While in the house, the kid from Big scares them with his new pet baby alligator. The reptile escapes in the house and now there’s a short unfunny scene of them trying to find the creature. The boys are them scared out of the house by the same creepy old woman who was staring in Frankie’s window earlier. While running away, Frankie is scared by Geno. Again. Frankie then tries to explain the whole story of what he has seen, the ghosts and whatnot to his brother. His brother is skeptical and when Frankie tries to show him the ring he found, he just now realized he misplaced it a few scenes back but unbeknownst to Frankie, Geno found it. Later that night both Geno and Frankie see and communicate to the little ghost girl and Geno is now convinced of the story. So much so that when the clock strikes 10 and she leaves to relive her death, the boys follow her to the school and see her being carried away out of the school again towards the cliffs. Frankie runs after her while Geno, sans shoes, steps on a shard of broken glass.
Following the ghost girl to the cliffs, Frankie sees the final moments of ghost girls life. She wasn’t actually killed in the cloakroom but the fall off the cliff was the actual death when she was thrown by her killer. After she’s thrown off the cliff, Frankie than witnesses another, younger Lady in White run out of the cliff-side house after the ghost girl. When this new Lady in White sees that her daughter is dead at the water’s edge, she too jumps to her death in bad 80s special effects. Just before she leaps two giant palmed hands are superimposed behind her. I’m left baffled at what this means or symbolizes to be quite honest. Geno meets up with Frankie and they return home. In the morning there’s a disturbing scene between Geno, who’s sick from being outside in the middle of the night in just pajamas (plus the foot injury) and his grandmother, who unable to get a proper reading on the thermometer orally, forces Geno to take the temperature rectally. Again, why is such a pointless scene in here?
The janitor’s case is thrown out due to lack of evidence. While leaving the courthouse, he is fatally shot by the same woman who believed he was actually her son’s killer years ago. This scene is unnecessary to the overall plot and a waste of everybody’s time.
While home sick, Geno decides to look up who possibly the class ring belongs to. Their father has the same class ring and has the yearbook. Its then revealed that it’s their ‘Uncle’ Phil’s ring and hence the real killer of all those kids. While Geno finds this nugget of information, Frankie is with Phil practicing archery in a field not too far from the cliffs. While packing up the car to return home, Phil starts humming and singing, Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking accidentally revealing himself to be the killer to Frankie. Frankie tries to lock himself in Phil’s station wagon while Phil, at first, tries to kindly and gently coax him out. When Frankie refuses to unlock the car, Phil becomes increasingly angry and tries to muscle his way in. Scaring Frankie out of the car, Phil makes chase as Frankie leads them to the Lady in White’s cliff-side house. While Phil threatens Frankie to give him the ring, Phil is knocked out by the elderly Lady in White (played by Katherine Helmond) and she gives Frankie refuge inside.
Seems this older Lady in White is not the ghost girl’s mother and she is not a ghost either but alive and living in this house for no reason other to lament her sister’s and niece’s death, probably because being a greeter at Walmart hasn’t been invented yet. While raving and going on about her family members untimely deaths she is attacked by Phil and subsequently killed. While he is attacking Helmond they knock over a few of the 100’s of candles she lit in the room. The room must be made out of burlap because as soon as the candles fall the whole room ignites like tissue paper. After Phil kills her he rescues Frankie out of the burning house. But then takes him over to the cliff to try to throw him off. Why not just let the boy burn and have, maybe, a better alibi? Burning to death isn’t much better than plummeting a few stories to a rocky shore line. While wrestling at the cliff, the Lady in White (the actual ghost one) somehow shoots lightning out of her fingers and scares Phil so badly that he falls off the cliff. The Lady in White then calls for her daughter and the ghost girl then flies out of the burning house. why was she in the house? Every night she is routinely thrown off the cliff and the Lady in White, who’s in the house, runs out to find her and then leaps to her death. So the ghost daughter in the house makes zero flipping sense now. Anyway they are reunited finally and in a weak special effect attempt they turn into bright lights and fly away as Frankie watches. But then Frankie is grabbed by Phil, who somehow grabbed hold of something on the side of the cliff. Moe Green comes in the nick of time to save his son. Moe, in an act of supreme compassion or stupidity tries to save his old friend, Phil as he again hangs off a branch on the side of the cliff. Phil, shamed and guilty as sin, refuses his friend’s hand and falls to his death. Then it begins to snow and I just wasted 2 hours of my life.
Is It Actually Scary: Why is it so bleeping hard to make a good ghost movie?! Granted this film was more of a who-dun-it mystery thriller with some supernatural elements but come on, have some scares in it. All the ghosts, including Helmond’s character are benevolent and helpful. There’s very little suspense or tenseness to this film and the horrible pacing, I think, is to blame. Even after Phil learns that Frankie found his ring, he has no urgency to A. get it back as soon as he can or B. get rid of Frankie. Yes, I realize that would give away himself as the killer earlier but again, Frankie has a ton of time to solve the ghost girl’s murder. Because she’s already dead. Frankie was attacked but the killer never tried to kill him again because he didn’t have to. The janitor subplot was pointless to us as an audience because we already knew he didn’t do it. But NO this film is not in really scary. The only scary scene was when Helmond was staring in Frankie’s room outside his window. That to me is freaky. But I have a thing about silent figures standing outside windows…maybe because of Psycho, with Mrs. Bates perpetually sitting by the window but since I was a kid, figures by windows can creep me out.
How Much Gore: There’s only minimal amount of blood. Most coming from the gunshot to the janitor’s cranium.
Dumb Moments: The title. Lady in White. Like I said, there’s a lot of folklore and ghost stories revolving around a mysterious lady in white. I’m cool with that but when you make a film and you call it Lady in White, how about you show this lady in white for more than 5 minutes of screen time. More time was devoted to the weak and lame janitor and grandparent subplots to the actual titular character. Frankie spent more time with the ghost girl, and that’s what the movie should be called: Ghost Girl. There’s other dumb moments but I already covered them in my synopsis.
Any Nudity: Nope.
Overall: I really like the ghost and supernatural sub-genre. While I don’t totally believe in ghosts, they are more believable than vampires and werewolves. They are human apparitions who for various reasons haunt other human’s or places, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile but humans nonetheless and therefore scarier or at the very least more interesting to me. A lot of people believe in them or even have encounters with ghosts thus making them hard to discredit as a phenomenon. I love Poltergeist and its first sequel. The original The Haunting is great. The Entity leaves an “impression” on you. Even The Sixth Sense had its moments but Lady in White is way too long, has terrible pacing and uninteresting characters and not enough scary supernatural elements. The director tried to make a love-letter to his small town roots with excessive amount of nostalgia and failed to make an interesting mystery. Speaking of Sixth Sense, me thinks M. Night may have seen this film a tad too much. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to people who haven’t seen it, I won’t knock people who have seen it when they were kids and have a fond memory of it. As much as I didn’t like it as an adult, I can kinda see me liking it back in 1988 though.
Score: 4 falsely accused janitors (out of 10)